In season 2 of 13 Reasons Why, Ajiona Alexus's Sheri Holland feels like one of the only adults in the room. 13 Reasons Why is a lot of things — many of them controversial — but, at it's core, it's about a group of teens slowly and painfully morphing into adults. When season 2 of the show begins, Sheri (Alexus) has seemingly already morphed. She plays the role Tony (Christian Navarro) played in season 1, guiding Clay (Dylan Minette) and Justin (Brandon Flynn) through their own turmoil. This is because, in the action between season 1 and season 2, Sheri went to juvenile prison. (In season 1, she knocked over a stop sign that later led to the death of one of her fellow classmates.) Post-juvie, Sheri is at peace. She's interested in helping, and she seems disinterested in falling into panic mode, as the rest of the students often do.
Alexus herself stands apart from the 13 Reasons Why cast in that she's had a massive year. She starred in Acrimony alongside Taraji P. Henson, and, most recently, she played Gabrielle Union's daughter in the movie Breaking In. Alexus is also, like a number of her 13 Reasons Why cast mates, balancing a burgeoning music career. Just three weeks ago, she released her first real single, a playful track called "Baggage."
Now that season 2 of 13 Reasons Why has been on Netflix for two weeks — enough time for rabid fans to binge watch — Refinery29 spoke to Alexus about Sheri Holland, the outcome of the season 2 court case, and, because we're curious, her Charlie Puth eyebrow.
Refinery29: This has been a crazy year for you, huh?
Ajiona Alexus: "Yeah, I mean, I'm very blessed. I'm just glad I have all this stuff coming out. I've been working really hard. You know, it's always good to see your hard work pay off and come to light."
We don't get to see Sheri's time in juvie. She sort of references it. Did you make up a backstory for what happened?
"Yeah, me and the writers, we definitely discussed it. They thought, you know, what happened in season 1 — Sheri felt bad, so she called [the police] herself and let them know what happened and did a few months in juvie. Like, four months. She went to stay with her grandmother when she was in her juvie classes and so now she just came back. One of her main reasons for coming back was to get justice for Hannah Baker. Because, as you can see, after she turns herself in, she's still willing to do whatever it takes to really give Hannah Baker that justice. It just shows you how good of a person she is. And who she is to herself."
Why do you think she was so intent on helping Justin get sober?
"Because Justin plays a big part in this story, and getting justice for Hannah Baker is him speaking out. But he can't help her in any way if he's under the influence and doing drugs. Sheri's not thinking about herself in this moment. She's just trying to do whatever [she can] to help anyone in the group. To not only make themselves better, but I think just to make the whole community better. And it starts somewhere. She's just really willing to do whatever it takes to be that backbone for the characters that need it."
Season 1 Sheri and season 2 Sheri are pretty different. Did you do anything specific to demonstrate that shift? What were you trying to portray?
"To show you that she's real. Because every time you saw her in season 1, she was kind of covering up something, or just always being that leader and that cheerleader. I just wanted people to see how juvie changed [her] and made her more level-headed, more down-to-earth, and kind of more raw, in a way. It was like, she's not just a pretty girl. She has this intense powerful woman sense about her. About — everyone needs to get their stuff together and get back to reality so we can fix everything that's going on."
What do you think is the most powerful or surprising storyline in season 2?
"I think, you know, how people judge Justin. How people responded to his character. Even [Michele Selene Ang's] character — some of the characters who got backlash or some hate mail. See how people change. It shows you that not everyone knows the truth, and you never know the full side of the story, no matter who's telling it. It's always important not to judge these characters based off of what they did. Because, for one, you don't know how it truly happened. And, for two, everyone's going through something on their own. So, nobody's perfect."
Oh, that's interesting. Did Sheri get any backlash or hate mail?
"No. Sheri didn't. I feel like my character, the majority of fans liked her. I think some of the girls — she had some, 'Jeff deserved better' type of thing. I feel like in an overall sense, she showed that she had a good heart in most of her scenes. She made a few mistakes. But she made up for it."
Why was she so intent on helping Clay solve the clubhouse mystery?
"Sheri — she went through the process a little faster. She knows what it feels like to be alone. She was in juvie for four months. Being a head cheerleader and making that transition, it can change you a lot. Sheri understands what its like to be going through this thing. For her to be able to go through it so fast, she's willing to go help any other characters, because she was lucky enough to make it through."
At the end of the season, after all that, Olivia Baker (Kate Walsh) loses her case against the school. The jury clears the school of responsibility in the death of Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford). Do you think she should have won the case?
"It's such a deep conversation. You could go on and on. You definitely always see both sides of a story, so it's hard for me to actually answer that question, because it's like, this is how school systems are. I think it's important to show that all this stuff is going on at schools and kids are going through this and it's leading out to these types of issues and problems. At the end of the day, everybody doesn't take on that responsibility in school systems nowadays. It shows you how broken the system is, and how things go down, and then how they either turn out or don't turn out. I think it's good for reality purposes. And to keep it as real and raw as possible. I feel like the crowd can relate to that more."
The montage in the finale of all the women characters recounting their experiences of sexual assault was intense. What was the conversation surrounding that scene like?
"I think with any matter and taking on any scene in a storyline in 13 Reasons Why, it's always going to be a little intense. You just gotta wrap your mind around it, and just tell people, at the end of the day, for my career, I do it to help people. It's not just about me. I think about the importance of the scene, and how it will convey to other people. I think it's important that people see that that is happening all around the world, from school systems to juvie. And to show the dynamic of that — I think it's important to have that content out there. There's just so much going on out here. There's so much on the web now. And it's just — you have to show people what people are really going through. That we're all human, and that it really breaks people down. It's all to raise awareness of what's going on.
We never want to do things to get a negative response, but showing what everyone's going through — it's important to finding a solution."
You, like a lot of 13 Reasons Why stars, are also embarking on a music career. What inspired this pivot?
"Growing up, I've always been involved from the music side to the acting side. So, music is something that's been dear to my heart and runs in my family. I've always worked on music over the past few years, and I just feel like now, you know, because I'm developed so much when it comes to vocals and writing style — just me as an artist, I'm finally where I want to be. So, it's more so about me making sure my artistry is where I want it to be before it's released. It didn't have much to do with timing of the show. It's just something I've always done."
Are you doing anything to differentiate between your acting persona and your music persona?
"Acting is about promoting the character, or the movie, or the series, whatever it is. Whereas, when it comes to my artistry and my sound in music, it's just me. I definitely think it's important — there's no sugarcoating or storyline when it comes to my music. It's just me being who I am."
Lastly, I want to ask about the scar on your eyebrow.
"Yeah, actually, when I was younger, I was really rough. I scratched, I think, on a window, and I had to get stitches. When they took the stitches out, the hair never grew back. It's actually a natural scar. It's kind of like my signature thing now."
Editor's Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.